Sam Rayburn Reservoir, named for the Texas legislator who was the longest serving Speaker of the House in the history of the United States House of Representatives, was impounded in the mid-1950s, and opened “for business” in 1965. The lake was built for flood control and as a source of hydroelectric power, but it quickly became known for its bass fishing, drawing anglers from long distances who wanted to fish for fun, catch big fish, or participate in tournaments.
The piney woods of East Texas have been blessed with a great many quality tournament venues in addition to Rayburn, including Toledo Bend, Lake Livingston and Lake Conroe, and as a result the region has also produced a huge number of top tournament pros. In addition to the “Hemphill Gang” – which consisted of stars Larry Nixon, Tommy Martin, Harold Allen and John Torian, there were other shining stars including but not limited to David Wharton, Randy Dearman, Randy Fite, Bo Dowden (from across the border in Louisiana), and of course Rick Clunn.
Lonnie Stanley fits into this mix in several regards. He competed in 124 B.A.S.S. events, including five Bassmaster Classics, winning the 1987 Megabucks tournament on the Harris Chain and the 1997 Texas Invitational on Sam Rayburn. Additionally, as we’ve detailed previously on the Bass Fishing Archives, he was the founder of Stanley Jigs, an innovative tackle company in which he remains active today. One aspect of his life that we’ve yet to explore, however, is his close relationship to Sam Rayburn Reservoir.
Looking at Stanley’s career at B.A.S.S., it’s obvious that he understood the ways of Big Sam. He fished 20 Bassmaster events on his home lake, finishing in the top 30 on 13 occasions. Seven of those were top 20 finishes and in addition to the victory he had three other top tens. His affinity for the lake predates its completion, because as Rayburn got ready to open, Stanley, who hailed from nearby Zavalla, Texas, was getting ready to graduate high school. The lake’s emergence coincides with his entry into adulthood, and he remembers its creation and its infancy well.
Here are some of his Rayburn memories, in his own words:
Me and my wife started dating in 1961 and we sat there and watched them build it before they closed it. We watched them pour the concrete and build the dam.
I’d seen the tree-crushers back in the 50s. They’d push the trees down. If you get a chance, look that up. Somebody’s got to have some pictures of those giant tree-crushers that they used at Sam Rayburn, maybe the Forest Service. Nobody really bass fished that much back then. We fished the rivers and the creeks and the sloughs or ponds, whatever. We used to get out of school at 3 o’clock every day and run to the old bridges and take a Tiny Torpedo or an H&H Spinnerbait and catch a hundred bass. That was the fun part of it – we took our girlfriends after school to go bass fishing.
The tree crushers were like 20 feet wide with wheels 20 feet tall. These numbers that I’m saying, I’m not sure that’s exactly right, but they’d go through the woods like a giant tricycle and crush the trees down. It was the most amazing thing for a 12 to 15 year old kid to watch. I’ll never forget those big cypress trees over in Ayish Bayou and up here by the bridge in the Attoyac River – the trees were maybe 150 or 200 feet tall and they’d just crush ‘em down. They pushed them over and crushed them flat.
At Toledo Bend they didn’t use the crushers, but that’s why at Rayburn we have so much open water. They still left places like the Black Forest and near the 103 bridge, and north of the 147 bridge, with lots of trees, but the main lake, from Caney Creek south, they cut it all down.
We had an Arkansas Traveler. I think it was 16 or 17 feet long with an old Mark Twain Mercury motor on it. I built a wooden deck on the front of it and put an office chair on that wooden deck. I nailed and taped it down and put a trolling motor on it. That was my first bass boat.
We won some Texas State Championships on Sam Rayburn. I think that was 1972, 1973 and 1974. That was all of the bass clubs, back before I turned professional in 1979 or 1980.
I caught two 12 ½ pounders out of Rayburn, but the biggest bass I ever caught was a 12.99. I caught it in Lake Fork doing the ESPN show that we used to do. I was so proud to be on ESPN for 17 ½ years on the Sportsmans Challenge. It was a lot of fun to be on that show. A lot of hard work, but satisfying to be on that show for that many years.
The biggest change since they built Rayburn is that for the first 18 years we fished brush and the natural vegetation that was there, but in the last 20 or 30 years or so, the growth of the hydrilla has changed things – too much, not enough, or whatever. We learned how to pitch jigs in the grass, punch the grass, fish over the grass. In fact, that’s where all the Hemphill guys over at Toledo Bend like Tommy Martin and Larry Nixon and that bunch of guys, used to come over to Rayburn. Between the two lakes you could develop four or five patterns. That’s why they were so hard to beat everywhere.
Those guys were really fun – not just Martin and Nixon, but Ricky Clunn and Randy Fite over at Conroe. They were fun guys to be around because they were good fishermen and they didn’t mind teaching you. We were definitely sniffing around them all the time trying to figure out what they were doing. I keep in touch with all of them. Tommy is on our pro staff. Clunn moved to Missouri so I only get to talk to him sometimes, not like I used to, but I try to stay in touch with him.
I still fish all of the Bass Champs tournaments. We actually won the Fishers of Men tournament Angler of the Year last year on Rayburn and Toledo. They’ll have three on Rayburn and three or four on Toledo. You can fish two tournaments a month on Rayburn and Toledo if you want to. We’re lucky to have those lakes so close. I’m 53 miles from Toledo and 7 from Sam Rayburn. In addition to the bass fishing, the crappie fishing on both lakes is extremely good, and my family loves to have fish fries. I came up with a little frog to catch them. I’ve got one box, six hundred dollars worth of those little frogs, that I have to carry down there this afternoon to Ann’s Tackle.
I feel very fortunate. If there ever was God’s Country as far as bass fishing it would have to be somewhere right here. We’re 130 miles from the big city in Houston and about the same from the Dallas area, so we’re kind of in the middle. We didn’t even talk about Lake Livingston, which is 50 miles one way. Conroe is less than two hours away. Lake Fork is three hours that way. We were really lucky to have those lakes. I never would have been a bass fisherman if I hadn’t spent so much of my life on Sam Rayburn. It has been a blessing to get to fish that thing.